Martha's Vineyard Pop-Up Restaurant Reflections
Photo by Olivia Wilkey
Around March 15 2020, I turned my dining room into a makeshift lab, converting an old cooler into a temperature and humidity controlled chamber to incubate tempeh. I didn't have anything to do when the lockdown started, but had Amazon at my disposal. I turned my tempeh research into a report that I tried to get out to every chef I've worked with. Naively, I thought they’d care. In my bubble, I thought I was helping to save the future of food by using sustainable legumes to educate others on alternative protein sources. Ultimately, no one was interested - they were dealing with the impending closures that would grow to define the culinary industry for the next 6 months.
In a quest to stay busy, I tried my hand at Instagram food tutorials, but that was short lived. I felt useless. I’m a chef - I cook for people. Those people were gone. The streets had no cars on them, and the sidewalks and supermarket shelves were barren. No one knew how long it would last. I kept trying to figure out how I could do something positive, even if my girlfriend and I were the only ones who could eat whatever I made. I wanted something bigger than my home kitchen, and dreamed up a COVID-safe popup restaurant that I was certain was never going to happen.
The idea was to find a vegetable garden, a couple of grills, a friend to collaborate with, and a dynamic source for sustainable ingredients. After many calls, a beautiful garden space on Martha's Vineyard was generously donated. I called my friend Flynn McGarry to see if he was available to collaborate on the project. It would require a lot more than my usual itemized list. Because of CO-VID, we now had to consider travel restrictions, social distancing, and testing. I thought we were going to have to cancel everything a dozen times, but ultimately it worked out.
The pandemic made staffing especially difficult. Luckily, our girlfriends, Rebecca and Olivia, wanted to come with us. They agreed to work, and we would have been screwed without them. It sounded magical to get out of town and be on an island for two weeks, but they ended up hating us for how hard it was. Even with their help, to run the pop-up with only 4 people was insane. Flynn or I would wake up around 7 am to clean the tables and finish washing dishes from the previous night. We rarely finished breaking down before 1 or 2 AM. On top of that, our days off were filled with trips to the dump, hardware stores, and markets. The dump was a racket. They'd charge us 10-15 dollars every time we wanted to throw out a bag or two of lobster tails.
We worked directly with local farmers, fishmongers, and mushroom growers to source ingredients. The goal was to source 90% of our products from the island - everything beside vinegars, olive oil, and dried goods. We stayed away from meat in order to have a low-impact menu, focusing on bivalves, shellfish, and vegetables. We wanted to challenge ourselves to be radical in our adaptation and serve things that would not typically be included in a traditional fine dining setting.
We found out quickly that the growing conditions on Martha’s Vineyard were less than ideal. Farmer after farmer told us that the humidity causes the flowers on plants to rot before they’re even pollinated. Though a lot of the produce we had access to was grown organically, it had failed to ripen in the short and difficult growing season. We had to look at each ingredient and figure out how to coax the best flavors from them. Their cucumbers were a delicious exception to much of the unideal produce on the island. Farms like Beetlebungin Chilmark were growing varieties with unique flavor profiles. I’d snack on whole ones when we had downtime on the prep day. Some cucumbers had citrusy, melon-like flavors, while others were classically refreshing, crunchy, and sweet. They were some of the best produce we ate.
In restaurants, it is often looked down upon to repeat ingredients from course to course. It is considered a sign of lacking creativity, and I hate this notion. Our limited ingredient list became a test of how creative we could be, and how different iterations of the same vegetables could be unique. We prepared cucumbers raw, marinated and grill-charred. Flynn and I created dishes based on the specific cucumber we were using. For our scallop and cucumber kabobs grilled on huckleberry branches, we used a variety of Armenian cucumber with a sweet, fruity flavor and added a bit of lemon. Our marinated cucumber salad had fresh cheese and lemon cucumbers briefly marinated in hazelnut oil and flowering herbs along with a small, raw Persian cucumber for crunch. Next, we used cucumber as a relish on grilled tempeh. For this, we removed the seeds from classic pickling cucumbers and charred them. Then, we minced the charred cucumbers and mixed them with vinegar, honey, and salt to create a condiment. We spooned this on top of grilled tempeh coated in a smokey kosho glaze. Finally, we used big, crunchy, sweet cucumbers to make a granita, which we spooned onto a corn semifreddo for dessert.
The lack of maturity in some of the vegetables created another issue. How can we get an OK tomato to taste incredible? Flynn came up with a delicious sauce for a tomato salad that stayed on the menu throughout the pop up experience. He used grated radish and Shio Koji (a fermented rice product) to add vegetal depth and umami to the lackluster fruit. He then sprinkled it with the flowering herbs that the island had an abundance of.
The local shellfish and seafood could not be more pristine. The farmed products needed to be tweaked to perfection and the seafood needed next to nothing to shine. Our goal was to marry the produce and seafood in a way where one didn’t outshine the other.
Everything was a lesson in how to work with the surroundings. Farmers were trying to do the impossible, and doing a really good job despite the growing conditions. You have a handful of pristine ingredients which form strange and complex relationships with the history of the island. The shiitake mushrooms there are an example of this relationship.
A couple friends came together to form Martha's Vineyard Mycological, which takes advantage of the unwanted oak logs, an invasive species on the island. The local forest service clears the oak logs from the woods for farmers to use as a substrate for growing mushrooms. The landscape looks a bit like an abandoned construction site, with the logs scattered around. It turns out that the humidity levels on the island are similar to the best mushroom growing regions in Japan, and that oak logs might be the best substrate for growing them.
The farmers were able to take advantage of waste and grow something perfect in a space that seemed to have little potential. One oak log can only produce about three fruitings of shiitake, but we gave the spent logs a second life by using them on the grill. Spent logs burned more slowly than what I’m used to when grilling with oak, but they were great for smoking and retained a beautiful, even heat throughout the night.
Dinner Menu 08/06/20
Clam with charred tomato water and purslane
Charred cabbage dolma
Grilled tempeh with kosho and cucumber
Tomato salad with garden herbs
Charred and marinated cucumbers with fresh cheese
Eggplant with pickled shiitake and smoked bluefish
Grilled striped bass with summer vegetable stew
Cucumber granita with corn semifreddo
Olive oil cake whipped corn and blueberries